The Bofors case has been compared to Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth, a symbolic returning embodiment of downfall and guilt, and also to the Terminator series, with its ability to constantly startle even when you think the tale has ended. If it is a returning ghost, it actually seems more akin to the pantomimic creatures of the night in the Ramsay Brothers films of the 1980s, cheap make-up peeling from their faces, trying extra-hard to look scary, but ending up with more guffaws than jitters in the audience. What else can you say about a case that has remained blowing in the wind for nearly three decades, has not been legally solved through seven different prime ministers, and in which two of the four individuals accused died over a decade ago.
An entire new generation of voters has taken root since VP Singh waved a piece of paper in an election rally in 1989, grandly declaring that he had the relevant Swiss bank numbers and that he would have the guilty in jail in 15 days if he became prime minister. More than half of today’s India was either not born or in infancy when Ram Jethmalani started hurling his daily questions at Rajiv Gandhi and when Chitra Subramaniam, Malini Parthasarathy and N. Ram began publishing facsimiles of the tell-tale documents in the Hindu. Yet, like a villain who refuses to die, the same questions keep coming back.
The lurid details of payments into Swiss accounts codenamed Lotus, Tulip, and Mont Blanc; the Italian connection of Ottavio Quattrochi and his legendary clout in Delhi; the loud whispers of a the messy cover-up and the crusading of VP Singh which destroyed the Rajiv Gandhi’s white-knight image and cost him his premiership. Bofors turned into a byword for all that is wrong with our political system and the issues it raised are still relevant today. The question, though, is whether it still matters politically.
There is, no doubt, a great deal of hypocrisy in the loud Congress defence of Rajiv Gandhi this week. Yet, despite all the bluster and heat in the BJP’s headlong charge in Parliament, the fact remains that of the 23 years that have elapsed since Bofors cost Rajiv Gandhi the 1989 election, non-Congress governments have been in power for about 10. Seven of these years saw truly non-Congress governments (VP Singh in 1989-90 and the Vajpayee years between 1998-2004). Seen in this light, Bofors becomes more a metaphor for the inaction and the hypocrisy of the entire political class than of Congress corruption by itself.
Congress governments, including this one, have much to answer for on the question of Quattrochi but it is equally true that the CBI under an NDA government as well failed to convince a Malaysian court to extradite Quattrochi. The problem goes back to the very beginning. As Chitra Subramaniam has pointed out, even the first Letter Retrogatory issued at the very start of the investigation was a virtual “museum piece” out of sync with international practise. Whatever the real reasons, the charges of cover-up seem less convincing when the accusing political parties have themselves had a fair chance and still failed to nail the culprits.
Perhaps this is why there were few murmurs of protest when the Delhi High Court accepted a CBI request to close the case last year, curiously just after an income tribunal ruled that commissions were indeed paid into the accounts of former Bofors agent Win Chadha and Ottavio Quattroachi, who represented the Italian petrochemicals firm Snamprogetti.
Politically, already reeling from an overdose of scams, the Congress can do without the re-emergence of past sins. Bofors raises too many uncomfortable questions but the 64 crore payoff in the 1986 deal pales in comparison with the current imagery of the ruling party around the Commonwealth Games and the telecom scandals, where it is difficult to even count the zeroes in the losses to the exchequer.
Equally, its own record of prosecution in the case meant that it was difficult for the BJP to gain much political capital from the case despite the noise it generated. Whatever remained of the moral high ground went when the gods of politics decreed that Bangaru Laxman’s sentencing would come up in the same week as the Lindstorm revelations. He may have been removed from the party as soon as the Tehelka tapes became public but the visual image of Bangaru Laxman stashing currency notes in his desk while discussing a fictitious defence deal has never quite gone away. Its resurgence this week alongside the Bofors case only served to strengthen a general mood of cynicism around defence deals and a fixed political system where few seem above board and everybody seems part of the problem.
Bofors and its questions must not be wished away but if there is to be no ending to the Ramsay picture we can at least do with a little less political hypocrisy around it.